Documentary Productions

Documentary Productions, Licensing, The Right Footage

Fair Use in Documentary: Understanding the Costs


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‘Fair use’ is a term used in the media industries in many countries. However in the United States, ‘fair use’ refers to the doctrine in US copyright law allowing the use of short verbatim excerpts of copyrighted material for a range of “transformative” purposes such as criticism, news reporting, teaching, research, and even parody without permission from the copyright holder. Countries such as the UK and France have their own fair use laws with specific language and guidelines, but these are ultimately quite similar in purpose to American fair use doctrine. In countries where fair use is permitted, this legal framework can be a valuable tool for filmmakers, especially fair use in documentary. However, in some cases, claiming fair use on footage used in a project can present editorial and aesthetic constraints, as well as pose a legal and financial burden to a production.

Here are a few things to remember when considering claiming fair use of copyrighted footage in film and television productions. (more…)

Documentary Festivals, Documentary Film Industry, Documentary Productions

The Documentary Film Industry in 2019: Insights from Peter Hamilton


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Recently, we had the privilege to host Peter Hamilton. Peter is an executive producer and senior consultant to industry leaders, governments and nonprofit organizations in the non-fiction television sector. He is the founder/editor/publisher of DocumentaryBusiness.com, the indispensable weekly newsletter on the non-fiction TV business where he sheds light on current trends in the documentary film industry. Here we discuss the pros and cons of the rise of powerful SVOD channels with the capacity to reach a global audience. Here’s the interview our CEO, Melanie Rozencwajg had with Peter.

Peter, you are a major expert in the documentary film industry and it is a real privilege for us that you are sharing your vision and insights with Archive Valley’s international community. First, can you tell us a bit more about yourself, when was your blog born and how many years did you have the privilege to work and witness the industry changes from inside?

Thank you, Melanie. I have always loved History since I was a little boy, growing up in Victoria, Australia. My mother liked to take me on week-long trips around the bush in her Morris Minor, with a thermos of tea and a package of roast lamb sandwiches on the back seat. She would stop at deserted graveyards and decipher for me the stories behind the migrations, epidemics and shipwrecks that she read in the gravestones. Her curiosity ignited my love of discovering the past. As a young reporter, I became thrilled by how the film archive brings stories from the past to life. I have served as a senior consultant since 1987. My specialization is marketing and business development. One of my first projects was to help plan and then launch Discovery International. Before that, I was an executive at CBS in New York.

Back in 2010, I decided to share my expertise and industry analysis in an online newsletter. I saw a gap in the trade press for revealing the ‘business of the documentary film and unscripted business.’ I’ve been excited to support Archive Valley’s creative solution to archive research since I first met your team at MIPTV 2018 ( you can find the key takeaways from our panel talk here).

Your blog offers a broad perspective on how and what are the reasons for the current shift and changes in the non fictionindustry. Latelyyou’ve elaborated a lot on the changes and challenges the SVOD channels brought to the industry: how does it affect the broadcasters’ business? and does the rise of distribution channels lead to a rise in content/shows/ documentary productions in order to feed all the different distribution channels?

We are about to enter a time when the pipeline of unscripted programming will be cut back. The rise over four decades of hundreds of Cable / Satellite channels drove a massive increase in commissions because each channel needed a certain number of fresh hours, as many as 600 a year, to fill their schedules, particularly their primetimes. And viewers watched repeats in great numbers

Enter online video platforms led by Netflix: Viewers can now watch want they want when they want to. Binge-viewing scripted series became the preferred way of consuming video.

U.S. channels are quite rapidly losing subscribers and viewers, particularly of repeats. Facing declining revenues, many networks have cut back their acquisitions of original unscripted series and specials. This trend will be replicated worldwide, although with the most resistance occurring in Western Europe and UK.

Netflix’s strategy involves a shift towards commissioning feature documentaries that cut through the clutter by involving ‘auteurs’ as directors, and A-Listers as executive producers, talent and often as subject material.  It’s the Hollywood scripted model applied to unscripted, and it most resembles HBO Documentaries’ longtime strategy.

So the non-fictionbusiness is in flux, things are changing, new structures are developing. What’s your view on the global temperature of the non-fictionbusiness overall?

The new global documentary commissioning pipeline is, therefore, a narrower one, with fewer originals flowing through it. But it involves more “Blue Chip” productions, often with much higher budgets than characterized the Cable / Satellite era. Netflix and Amazon are such dominant players worldwide that I don’t see many competitive SVOD platforms emerging soon who will fill out the demand lost as channels cut their budgets and volume.

So my #1 Takeaway: Fewer projects overall. But more big budget documentaries involving A-Listers, and that are developed along the Hollywood model with agents as their packagers.

Is there, in your opinion, a risk that the distribution channels (svod, broadcasters) will suffer like other industries from industry concentration and monopoly?

The new online video model is a duopoly: Netflix and Amazon dominate, with Hulu chasing them. They are evolving to become platforms that offer subscribers everything from $200 million budget star-studded movies to the NBA and Premier League. Amazon enjoys the most sophisticated model because, as Jeffrey Bezos says, “Video helps sell shoes.” The center of power in video entertainment has shifted: It was shared by LA and New York, with London important in many genres, particularly documentaries. And Washington, too. Now, nearly all cellphones are dialing LA. Disney, Comcast, Apple, Facebook and YouTube are also in the picture. They enjoy tremendous resources, but they have been left behind by Amazon and Netflix.  The BBC plus French and German and several other European public broadcasters will remain important commissioners of unscripted programs as they retain strong tax-based funding and loyal if ageing audiences.

In your own words you said that “Despite the challenging business environment, the global documentary film industry and unscripted sector is responsible for $ billions in annual productions and sales”. Will the competition landscape open up new opportunities and raise the quality bar and the amount of content (shows, films, documentaries…) produced to feed the viewers’ appetite for good shows ?

Industry veterans became certain that our sector would grow forever. The shock of this decade is that the boom came to an end. But it’s not a bust. The global unscripted business will remain a huge mega-billion dollar industry compared to its size back in the early Eighties before the Cable / Satellite boom. It will be somewhat smaller, with more high-quality projects eating up the total pie spent on the genre. Channels will continue to commission originals, though fewer of them and with tighter budgets.

Netflix and Amazon are in a growth spurt, spending furiously to grab market share everywhere. Their hectic spending on original, A-Lister commissions will become more selective as they reach maturity. And new entrants to the online video business will chase them, providing new opportunities for filmmakers, including for specialists in archive-base History.

What are in your opinion to you the next big opportunities and challenges producers/ filmmakers will face with this current industry shift?

Oscar-nominated directors or producers who are working with celebs and A-Listers are finding open doors at the SVOD’s, particularly if they are represented by a credible agent.

The mid-size producers who did well with Cable networks will find the going tougher, but they are still earning commissions. Europeans with strong relationships with public broadcasters will continue to do well.

And outside the commercial economy, the documentary film is one of the most prestigious forms of creative expression today. Governments, foundations and the super-rich together spend billions of dollars every year on feature docs. Their motivations range from winning awards and ten minutes of fame to changing minds. The creative talent involved is often amazing, with the art of documentary story-telling forever finding new ways to compel viewers.

Archival documentaries seem to be experiencing a golden age right now – if we add to that market shifts – it looks like archive sources can gain a lot by connecting with international filmmakers who are looking for new ideas and fresh local perspectives on historical events. Is that your reading of the situation? And what opportunities do you believe are out there for them?

Topics that rely on the archive are hot and are features of Netflix’s list of originals and top-performing commissions. Celebrity bio-docs, portraits of great musical artists, True Crime involving unheard of cases: these are among the genres in great demand. The celebrity bio-docs are particularly high-budget projects, often in the $5-10 million range, because of the cost of clearing the archive and music.

Many mid-priced commissions will rely on resourceful directors and researchers to efficiently discover fresh archive sources.

My final Takeaway is that the SVOD leaders are going global, and they are being challenged by local platforms. Giants like Netflix and their local competitors will all need regional productions to win and retain subscribers. We can see this trend in dramatic series created in Turkey, Israel, Scandinavia, India and more territories. Soon there will be an growth spurt in spending on local documentaries, and archive-based History will be one of the preferred genres.

Peter Hamilton is a senior consultant who specializes in business development and marketing for the unscripted video industry. His clients have included NBC, A+E Networks, National Geographic Channels, Global Canal+ and BBC; the Rockefeller Foundation; and governments, notably Singapore’s IMDA. He has planned and helped launch dozens of channels, notably for Discovery International. Peter is the founder, editor & publisher of DocumentaryBusiness.com, giving weekly insider analysis to 20,000+ executives and producers worldwide. He served as an executive for CBS International in New York. His consulting firm has been based in New York since 1987. He served as an executive for CBS International in New York. His consulting firm has been based in New York since 1987.

Documentary Productions, Rare footage, The Right Footage

“BARBARA RUBIN & THE EXPLODING NY UNDERGROUND”: Interview with Chuck Smith on his new film


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We were thrilled to meet brilliant director Chuck Smith last November at Doc NYC 2018 to talk about his new documentary film, BARBARA RUBIN & THE EXPLODING NY UNDERGROUND. More than simply a retrospective into the work and legacy of Barbara Rubin, a pioneer of underground cinema, the film recounts the wild-child life of Rubin as she experiments with drugs and sexuality before becoming a Hassidic Jew. Featuring Allen Ginsberg, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, and many more influential artists and musicians of the time all inspired by Rubin, this documentary explores the budding underground movement of 1960s New York City. BARBARA RUBIN & THE EXPLODING NY UNDERGROUND is also a beautiful tribute to Jonas Mekas, the Godfather of avant-garde cinema and the gatekeeper of Rubin’s archives, who passed recently. 

Could you tell me a bit about you? About your work? Your career as a filmmaker?

I wasn’t one of those kids who was fascinated with films and started using a camera at an early age.  Yes, I liked watching films, but I never saw myself making films until I met some friends who had a Super 8 camera.  Then I played around with the camera, but only for fun, still never thinking I’d do it as a career.  Instead – I thought I would “change the world” by working for Greenpeace and saving the planet from environmental destruction.  But, when I started working in NYC for the Department of Environmental Protection, I discovered that change can ONLY come from people who are inspired and the best way to INSPIRE people is with stories.  So, I began working on documentaries that dealt with nuclear disarmament and other causes.  Then, I slowly moved into telling all kinds of stories and being fascinated with telling them visually mostly for TV.  I worked in TV doing all kinds of shows based on reality for National Geographic, Discovery, etc. Only later did I start to make my own documentaries so I could spend time with stories that I love.

Chuck Smith

What made you want to tell this Barbara Rubin’s story?  

I’ve always been fascinated with “larger than life” characters who seem to have been forgotten by conventional history. Sometimes the most interesting and inspiring people in a historical moment are dropped from the historical narrative and replaced by others who carried their inspiration forward. These people are often a little too “crazy” for mass consumption, so their art/music/filmmaking or whatever needs to be adapted by slightly more conventional or stable artists.  Barbara Rubin was clearly one of those inspirational characters who was too unconventional to “succeed” in a traditional sense, but her ideas and energy were crucial to the development of other artists’ works and to the culture of the 1960’s underground in New York City.  And, of course, it’s always the “underground” that ends up influencing the larger cultural scene eventually.  Another interesting aspect of Barbara’s story was the fact that she was a creative woman at a time when women as a whole were not seen or treated as equal as men.  The 1960’s were a time of great change and freedom, but it was still a very male-dominated world that didn’t begin to change until the 1970’s – and some would argue that it STILL hasn’t changed enough. Barbara was trying to succeed in a world that was stacked against her, but, the important thing is that she never felt like her sex kept her back.  She never let the fact that she was a woman hold her back, and I think that’s why the powerful, creative men she was friends with (like Dylan, Ginsberg, and Warhol) were drawn to her.

For how long did you work on this project? Were there any major challenges financing the project?

From my first idea to the finished film took over 5 years. I didn’t work exclusively on BARBARA RUBIN & THE EXPLODING NY UNDERGROUND for that whole time, but it was a “labor of love” that I kept coming back to.  When it came time to edit the film, that’s when I spent a solid year working on it. I don’t believe in waiting around to get financing before starting a film. I always just start by self-financing the project and spending as little as possible. Then, when others see what I’m doing, they become interested in contributing either with their time, talent, or money. For this film, I received one major grant about half-way through the process that helped a lot, but basically it was a low-budget, self-financed film.

What was more important for you: telling the personal trajectory of this strong woman, showing her contradictions (from a free spirit feminist to a hassidic wife) or painting the portrait of a visionnaire, an artist, the motor of this New York creative scene?

Barbara Rubin’s life had a lot of fascinating aspects that intrigued me, but the most important part of her story from a filmmaking perspective was the fact that she had a personal transformation. All the best stories have a twist, or a moment when the “hero” goes through a life-changing event.  Without this drama, it’s very hard to sustain interest in the narrative.  For Barbara, the fact that she became a Hasidic Jew at age 23 is crucial. It gives her life a trajectory that is both inspirational and tragic in some sense. I wanted to understand – and help the viewers understand – how someone can make such a change in their life.  I’m not sure we can ever fully know why Barbara had to evolve that way, but I think my film helps explain it a bit.

Barbara Rubin

You had access to the archives of Jonas Mekas, who is preserving part of the Barbara Rubin’s Heritage and who’s is also working very hard to preserve avant-garde cinema through Anthology Film Archives. Could you tell us a bit more about your collaboration?

Jonas Mekas was crucial to the making of my film.  Without Jonas’ support and love I couldn’t have done the film. Not only did he give me complete access to his archives, but he opened his heart to discuss and remember a woman (Barbara Rubin) who meant a great deal to him. 

The role of the researcher is essential in archive driven documentaries. How did you work with Rosemary Rotondi? What was your process?

Yes, archival research was critical to my film and Rosemary was very helpful.  Since, I started the film with access to all of Jonas Mekas’ footage, and the Warhol films and archive, I had a good head start on period archival footage that either featured Barbara Rubin and her friends or was shot by Barbara.  But, once I had the basic story of her life down, I had to fill in all the gaps with more basic archival footage such as Queens, NY in the late 1950’s, or Vietnam War protest footage.  For that, I used Rosemary who was very familiar with what was available from the ’50’s and ’60’s.

Bob Dylan

While Immersing yourself in personal footage and archives of Barbara’s work, what did immediately catch your attention?

What caught my attention about the footage that Barbara shot in the early 1960’s was that it was so ALIVE with energy. She was using a 16mm camera like an iPhone! At the time, it was probably seen as erratic or shaky camera work, but now it seems very prescient of how fast our eyes work these days. I also was impressed with her use of super-imposing images.

How did you conduct the interviews? Did it take a lot of preparation or it was more a natural, intuitive process?

For my interviews, I had a few basic questions and an outline written down, but more often then not, I forgot all about the “planned” interview and followed the subject where they led.  Intuitive interviews are always better then sticking to a script. Certainly, with Jonas Mekas, I had absolutely NO control over where he would go or what he would talk about.  He heard my questions and then always said whatever he felt like.  Although he did read certain letters and pieces of his writing for my camera when I asked him to.

How did you combine visual creativity and storytelling?  Could you elaborate on your artistic choices?

Since BARBARA RUBIN & THE EXPLODING NY UNDERGROUND is based on history and a particular period in experimental filmmaking, I tried to take all of my visual storytelling cues from the footage and films of that period.  Since Barbara often used multiple screens and double projections, I wasn’t afraid to use these techniques as well.  I also tried to give my documentary a very tangible “film feeling” – showing sprockets, actual film, and projectors when appropriate.  Maintaining the same “film feeling” while working with various film/video sources helped me give the documentary a more unified look.  I even layered film “headers” which had nothing on them over some of the still photographs in the film to give the stills an active look.

Barbara Rubin thought that the act of filming could change the world. What would be a good example for that today?

I still think that filmmaking can change the world. For Barbara Rubin, it was the boundary-pushing aspect of film to change the culture and then the world. If she could make people see radical images, then their understanding of what’s appropriate would change and so would their attitudes.  Today, I’m not sure that filmmakers can still find aesthetic and content barriers to break like Barbara did, but there’s no doubt that powerful images can still affect people.  If you film a lonely polar bear on an iceberg that is floating and shrinking, a viewer will be forced to confront the reality of climate change and will hopefully act on that. Film and moving images, in general, are still a very powerful force in the world.  Barbara would be happy about that.

Archive Researchers, Documentary Productions

Oscars 2019 Documentary Feature Shortlist: The Producers & Funds Behind Their Success


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The 2019 Oscars documentary shortlist was announced last month and the competition will probably see one of the most successful box-office selections of all times. Four of the shortlisted productions (“RGB”, “Free Solo”, “Three Identical Strangers” and “Won’t you be my neighbor”) have already been grossing at more than $10m. No matter who makes it to the nominations, we decided that it’s important to look at some of the production details of each of the 15 films in the shortlist. Producers, funds and decision makers played a key role in their journey to becoming some of the most notable achievements in the genre for 2018. Here are some interesting insights of how they are funded, their co-production partners, their festival rounds and distribution deals – celebrating all the people who made these projects possible and believed in their success.

Shirkers

First feature documentary by Sandi Tan. World premiere at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival, won the Directing award. Winner at Cinema Eye Honors Awards, US, Florida Film Critics Circle Awards, Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards, Philadelphia Film Festival . Produced by Maya Rudolph and Jessica Levin. Acquired by Netflix Originals and released on October 26, 2018 , becoming available in 195 countries and 25 languages. Post-production funding was provided by Doc Society Genesis Grant and Cinereach in addition to a development grant from Sundance.

Minding the Gap

(nominated)

Directed by the first-time filmmaker Bing Liu. World premiere at Sundance, followed by an international one at CPH:DOX. The most awarded film in the selection – 46 wins including awards at Sundance, Hot Docs, Sheffield, CPH:DOX. The film is a co-production of KARTEMQUIN FILMS (Diane Quon), POV (Justine Nagan) and ITVS. Additional funding was provided by Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program with support from Open Society Foundations, JustFilms | Ford Foundation, John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. It’s currently streaming on Hulu.

Three Identical Strangers

Directed by Tim Wardle. Premiered at Sundance and won the Grand Jury Award for Storytelling. Produced by RAW TV (Becky Read), CNN FILMS (Amy Entelis, Courtney Sexton) and Channel 4 (Sara Ramsden). Currently grossing $12,320,845, it is the 26th most successful project in the all-time documentary box office. The archival production was lead by Beatrice Read and Jack Penman both of whom we are happy to have in Archive Valley’s community of professional archive researchers. The distribution rights were acquired by NEON/ DOGWOOF and CNN is planning a broadcast premiere in 2019.

Dark Money

Directed by Kimberly Reed (“Prodigal Sons”). A production of Big Sky Film Productions, Inc. Co-produced by Big Mouth Productions (Katy Chevigny) and Meerket Media Collective. Premiered at Sundance where it won the Sundance Institute/Amazon Studios Producers Award. The production was supported by Doc Society / The Threshold Foundation, Topic Studios, JustFilms / Ford Foundation, IFP and Sundance. PBS acquired the North American distribution rights. You can watch it on POV SEASON 31, Jan 10th.

HALE COUNTY THIS MORNING, THIS EVENING

(nominated)

First feature documentary by RaMell Ross and probably the most visually unique film in the shortlist. Produced by Danny Glover’s Louverture films and co-produced by Field Of Vision (Laura Poitras & Charlotte Cook) and Bertha Foundation. The production also received additional funding by Cinereach, JustFilms / Ford Foundation, Doc Society / The Threshold FoundationIFP, Tribeca All Access and Sundance. PBS’s ‘Independent Lens’ will broadcast it on Feb 11.

Crime + Punishment

Directed by Stephen Maing (“High Tech, Low Life”). Production companies: Mud Horse Pictures, Field of Vision (Laura Poitras, Charlotte Cook), Sundance Documentary Institute. Received additional funding by Ford Foundation, Gucci Tribeca Documentary Fund, IDA Enterprise Documentary Fund, IFP. The archival producer behind the project was Wyatt Stone who’s also a member of Archive Valley’s community. The film is available on Hulu.

On Her Shoulders

A second documentary feature by Alexandria Bombach after her debut in 2015 with “Frame by Frame”. The project was entirely funded by RYOT Films (Hayley Pappas &.Brock Williams) Premiered and won the documentary directing award at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival. Oscilloscope Laboratories has acquired North American rights for distribution.

Of Fathers and Sons

(nominated)

Directed by Talal Derki. Premiered at Sundance where it was awarded Grand Jury Prize in the World Cinema – Documentary. Produced by BASIS BERLIN Filmproduktion (Tobias Siebert, Eva Kemme, Ansgar Frerich). In co-production with Ventana Film(Hans Robert Eisenhauer ), Impact Partners (Dan Cogan, Jenny Raskin, Geralyn White Dreyfous),  Cinema Group Production, and Südwestrundfunk, Rundfunk Berlin-Brandenburg in collaboration with ARTE. It received additional funding from Chicago Media Project, Doha Film Institute, IDFA BERTHA Fund, Screen Institute Beirut. Kino Lorber obtained the distribution rights for North America.

The Silence of Others

Directed by Robert Bahar, and Almudena Carracedo, with executive producer Pedro Amoldovar. The project is a co-production of Semilla Verde Productions, American Documentary | POV, Independent Television Service (ITVS) and Latino Public Broadcasting (LPB). Additional funding provided by Corporation For Public Broadcasting (CPB), support from Bertha Foundation, Catapult Film Fund, Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program. Multiple awards including Grand Jury Award – Best Documentary at Sheffield Doc Fest, IDA Pare Lorentz Award, Berlinale Peace Film Award. Distributed by Cinephil.

Charm City

Director: Marilyn Ness, two-time Emmy, Peabody, and DuPont Award-winning producer. Premiered at Tribeca 2018. Produced by Big Mouth Productions (Katy Chevigny) and co-produced by Motto Pictures (Christopher Clements). Funding support from IDA Enterprise Documentary Fund, Catapult Film Fund, Bertha Foundation, The Fledgling Fund, Hartley Film Foundation, and Sundance.

The Distant Barking of Dogs

Directed by Simon Lereng Wilmont, co-production between the Danish documentary powerhouse Final Cut For Real (Monica Hellstrøm, Heidi Elise Christensen), Mouka Filmi, STORY & Bayerischer Rundfunk, and Arte. The film was pitched at GÖTEBORG FILM FESTIVAL, NORDISK PANORAMA & IDFA FORUM. It received funding from Sundance Institute Documentary Film Program, Open Society Foundations, Ford Foundation – Just Films and The Creative Europe Programme of the European Union.

Free Solo

(nominated)

A second documentary feature by Jimmy Chinn after his debut in 2015 with “Meru”. A National Geographic Documentary Films release and presentation of a Little Monster Films, Itinerant Media, Parkes+MacDonald/Image Nation production. Executive producers: Walter Parkes, Laurie MacDonald, Tim Pastore, Matt Renner. Premiered at Telluride Festival, won the People’s Choice Award at TIFF. Currently grossing at $11m it is the fourth most successful documentary release of 2018.

 

RBG

(nominated)

Directed and produced by Betsy West and Julie Cohen of Storyville Films, in co-production with CNN FILMS (Amy Entelis & Courtney Sexton). The rights were sold to Magnolia Pictures and Participant Media. Renée Silverman was in charge of the archival production. So far it has generated more than $14m, the second biggest documentary box-office for 2018.


Communion

Directed by first-time filmmaker Anna Zamecka. Premiered at the 69th Locarno Film Festival where it won the Grand Prix of Semaine de la Critique. A co-production between Wajda Studio, HBO Europe (Hanka Kastelicová), Otter Films (Anna Wydra).

Won’t you be my neighbour?

Directed by Morgan Neville and produced by Tremolo Productions ( Caryn Capotosto, Nicolas Ma) with support from Impact Partners (Dan Cogan, Jenny Raskin, Geralyn White Dreyfous). Premiered at Sundance and since then it has gathered 30 festival awards. The archival production was lead by Susan Ricketts and Samantha Casey. It’s currently grossing at $22m and it has become the 12th biggest documentary box-office release of all times.

There will be only one winner at the Oscars award ceremony on 25th of Feb but there are already plenty of remarkable achievements : 12 of the selected productions in the Oscars 2019 documentary shortlist are their creators’ first or second project. 13 premiered at Sundance and 8 of those receiving support from Sundance Institute. Ford Foundation supported 5 projects, Doc Society & IFP – 3 , Cinereach, Impact Partners, ITVS and Catapult Film Fund – 2. Big Mouth Productions, CNN FILMS, and Field of Vision each co-produced 3 films. Congratulation to everyone involved in those projects for making 2018 truly exceptional year for the documentary film industry.

Archive Researchers, Documentary Festivals, Documentary Productions

Interview With Rhodri Lowis On His Work For Werner Herzog & Andre Singer’s Meeting Gorbachev


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Meeting Gorbachev was undeniably one of the standout archival productions on Archive Valley during 2018. As the head of the archive research, Rhodri Lowis found archives that eventually helped to build a very different portrait of Gorbachev, following the unique artistic vision of Werner Herzog and Andre Singer. We had the chance to catch up with Rhodri and learn about his experience working with these two amazing filmmakers and how Archive Valley became an important part of this archival production.

How did you get involved in this ambitious project?

I was doing some research for André Singer’s company Spring Films and he was going into production with the project, having finalised the funding. He took me on in a preliminary research role and I stubbornly stuck around!

When you started the project how specific were the directions gave by the two directors?

There was naturally some specific direction, but I was given some freedom to explore interesting areas. A lot was rather implicit, given that what is most important about Gorbachev’s life were the 6 years during which he was the leader of the USSR. As an international project (we were supported by A&E in the USA and MDR/Arte in Germany) there was a degree of focus on Gorbachev’s international dealings – with the USA, Germany, UK etc. – and how this resonates in present-day geopolitics.

As one might expect, there were some very precise demands from Werner Herzog – for example, a specific aerial shot of the “Baltic Chain”, where two million people across the region linked arms to demonstrate for independence. He also remembered reading of some footage of Gorbachev’s predecessor, the dying Chernenko, voting from his hospital room made to look like an official polling station. To him, these and a few other clips were essential to the narrative, and that was clear quite early on. My instructions from André were more broad, ranging from Gorbachev’s early life under Nazi occupation, following his rise through the ranks of the Soviet system, to the aftermath of the fall of the USSR. We amassed as much footage as possible and periodically would go through images, filtering out generic material to be best prepared for the edit.

Our producer Svetlana Palmer grew up under Gorbachev and worked on CNN’s Cold War series, and so had both first-hand memories and strong archive knowledge of major events in the Eastern Bloc. This really enriched the scope of the archive we could look for and her input was invaluable. Beyond that, as I also worked across the general research and preparation for interviews, that put me in a good position to think of areas to explore for archive footage.

You made quite a few requests through Archive Valley’s platform. What were your goals – trying to bring as much context as possible or finding the unexpected?

Well, both really. We had done some extensive background research and so had a good idea of the footage we wanted for some sections of the film – protests in precise locations leading to the breakup of the USSR, landmark events such as Chernobyl and the Reykjavik Summit, and particular press conferences. But I also put out a few requests hoping for some unexpected material. For example, we came across some little-seen footage of the Belavezha Accords, an agreement to effectively dissolve the USSR between the leaders of the Soviet republics. This was a huge moment that sealed the fate of the Union and decided the future of the now former-Soviet countries, and it was great to find it on camera. The Archive Valley platform was really useful to get these requests out to a broad spectrum of companies and independent researchers
with whom I could then discuss directly and in more detail the nature of our requests so as to ensure the best possible footage could be sent to us.

Is there a specific footage that you personally think stands out?

There’s some wonderful rarely-seen footage from the Russian State Archives in Krasnogorsk, which we used throughout the film but especially in a sequence depicting the funerals of Gorbachev’s three predecessors in very quick succession: mass parades, elaborate hearses and the frail remaining members of the gerontocracy that Gorbachev inherited. Werner also remembered a rather understated coverage of the initial opening of East-West relations. This was confirmed when we dug around local news archives. A clip from Austrian TV news in 1989 offered some gardening advice: to use a mug of beer to entice your booze-loving slug infestation and kill them off… The report is then followed by a somewhat underwhelming announcement that the Hungarian Prime Minister Miklós Németh had ordered the dismantling of the barbed wire fence between Hungary and Austria – the first hole in the Iron Curtain! Werner was astonished that somebody had decided this was less important news than beer and slugs, and it formed an amusing and memorable sequence in the film.

What was your experience dealing with Russian archive sources?

Our project was split about 50-50 between Russian and non-Russian archive sources. Everything in Russia and the former Soviet Union was expertly sourced and managed by our excellent Archive Producer Masha Oleneva, whose encyclopedic archival knowledge found us the best material there was. She is immensely experienced and ensured that negotiating with Russian archives was a relatively painless process.

The documentary is composed of three big interviews with Gorbachev by Werner Herzog. Did the archival research start before the interviews? What was their impact on your research process?

Yes, there was an initial scout to see what was out there, and as the interviews progressed, we had a better idea of what we could search for and use to furnish these conversations that form the film’s backbone. We didn’t have a very orthodox schedule, owing to Gorbachev’s health and availability; this demanded that interviews be carried out sometimes at very short notice or delayed at the last minute. This definitely dictated the direction of the film’s archive research; while we waited for an interview, we collected and refined material, but as soon as an interview was completed, it would throw up many more areas of interest for research and so it was really on a week-by-week basis in terms of direction.

How did you perceive the work dynamics and creative process between these two filmmakers?

This was my first time working with Werner and André, and both had very distinct methods that melded together well during the film’s progression. I was based at Spring Films in London with André and we worked much more closely.

André is a leading anthropologist, and as expected the research was directed with academic rigor. Over 9 months I saw his very methodical approach: we combed through reams of transcripts of dialogue between Gorbachev and other leaders and in parallel looked for interesting corresponding footage. Early on, he had a pretty clear idea of the film’s structure, and that certainly informed the visual material we researched.

Werner’s approach was rather different… He had the ideas in his head and in a small notebook that he took to the interviews with Gorbachev, but it was hard to predict which areas he would explore in the conversations. The same could be said for the edit: we had a pretty good idea of the film’s narrative, but Werner arrived and highlighted many other areas that we hadn’t, and this carved out a different direction.

I learnt quickly to predict nothing with Werner, and to only expect to be surprised!

What was the most challenging part of the archival production?

Our schedule was unforeseeably accelerated during the edit, so this gave us less time to negotiate and finalise deals with archive houses. I’d say the most challenging part, however, was keeping on top of all the material we had coming in – so many spreadsheets! I had to stay on top of where a piece comes from and how to access it, how much we were using from each archive house, all in the middle of an accelerated and naturally constantly changing edit period. It was certainly challenging, but to wish for more time would have been a luxury. This constrained time frame, in fact, helped us to focus more and be a bit more ruthless in negotiation! If something was going to cost too much, we dropped it, and our 6-month old catalog we had assembled often gave us cheaper and better alternatives.

How different is this film from a regular political biopic?

As the film’s title suggests, it is more the “meeting” of Gorbachev and Werner Herzog and the far-reaching conversations they had, rather than a day-by-day of Gorbachev’s life. Having said that, it was important to guide the viewer chronologically given that it was such a short time period (6 years) in which he changed the world. It was also essential to lay out these key moments explicitly for the younger generation – to which I belong – who have little if any memory of his impact on the 21st Century. I think we managed to avoid a regular portrait by highlighting the personal side behind Gorbachev’s political image – his family life, especially his profoundly moving relationship with his wife Raisa, which brings out the human side to a global leader. To add to this, we focused on the lesser-known and arguably pivotal moments of the era – the Hungary-Austria border fence for example. I think André’s all-bases-covered approach to research combined with Werner’s unconventional tendency to pick up on these unexpected areas strongly contributed to “Meeting Gorbachev” being more than a straightforward biopic.